7 September 2000 | galensaysyes
Great performance, half-baked script
As usual in Showtime's political dramas, "Strange Justice" dramatizes actual events just far enough to make them unconvincing but not far enough to turn them into drama. Also as usual in these half-plays or sketches, what dominates is preachy melodramatics. The central characters are almost the only ones who come across as plausibly human; the others, apart from Patinkin's spin doctor (a character for the producers and executives to admire), are reduced to stick figures. The few righteous in Sodom, the members of Hill's support group, appear stiff and phony in their "commitment", like TV anchorwomen. The bad guys, including all of Thomas's backers, are cartoons. Although Lindo's performance catches fire, the drama itself never does. Its most obvious structural fault is the choice not to dramatize the central event, the sequence of hearings. So the members of the committee, and the President, are shown in real news tapes, with the faces of the actors morphed in opposite them where necessary. The effect is transparently, transcendently false. These tapes, the we-happy-few discussions in the Hill camp, and the scenes of Thomas's grooming and training never coalesce into a whole. In the Thomas scenes the Patinkin character becomes a kind of public eye and Greek chorus, a master manipulator of opinion with the canniness to see through others' ideological posturing. I thought the film gave him too much credit, but then he's the show-biz standby, the cynic with a heart of gold. His presence would be unnecessary and even obtrusive if the film had a script that had the imagination to use what the raw material had to offer. The two leading actors (who are exceptionally well cast) appear to have got around that lack by basing their performances on the real-life figures as they came across in the real-life hearings. Taylor is not given enough time or space to show her character fully, but Lindo is, and while he doesn't have all the right speeches he has plenty of them and by playing between the lines manages to turn Thomas into a tragic hero of almost Shakespearean proportions, a man in denial of his own weaknesses who reacts by lashing out violently as everyone else. The enlargement of the real man to this scale is perhaps too obvious but is dramatically sound, and if the producers had been less concerned with the facts, as labeled to make sure we saw them in the intended light, and more concerned with the truth as they saw it, we would have got a much more persuasive and significant film.